Party bus

We are very excited to announce that Ocado Technology is now a 16-BIT Community Sponsor for Skills Matter. Over the past decade, Skills Matter has grown into Europe’s largest community of coders and developers, gaining momentum in London’s thriving tech scene.

We are delighted we can count Ocado Technology as one of our sponsors and supporters, and are very much looking forward to working with everyone in Ocado’s brilliant engineering team to see if and how we can organise opportunities to share some of the expertise and skills gained in creating the amazing solutions built for this innovative UK business. We know many members in our community are really looking forward to learning and sharing more with you! If your team has cracked a complex engineering challenge and discovered new technologies or approaches whilst doing so, please contact the Skills Matter team with any ideas for a talk and we’ll support you all the way, from proposing your talk to getting on stage. – Wendy Devolder, founder and CEO of Skills Matter

Ocado Technology and Skills Matter have a common vision of innovation-based software engineering that brings smart and creative developers together to learn, share and develop new ideas and ways of working.

Many of my colleagues have attended Skills Matter conferences, meetups and courses in the past and have been very impressed by the passion, experience and engagement that defines their community. Below are two recent examples where Ocado Technology and Skills Matter have worked closely together for the benefit of the software community:

droidcon London 2016

droidcon is one of the best places to meet members of the Android community, listen to expert speakers, find out about all the latest Android advances and see fantastic new technologies. This year Ocado Technology sponsored the droidcon London 2016 party, and Andrew Lord gave a lightning talk on ‘Lambda expressions – An overview for Android developers’.

Droidcon Crowd

Crowd closeup

Droidcon party

Other speakers included Chris Banes (Designing the design support library), Huyen Tue Dao (A New View: Layout Editor + Constraint Layout) and Chet Haase (Really important things about the business of technology).

All the talks are now available online – simply go to the event programme and log in.

µCon 2016

µCon is a UK-based microservices expo and conference. The event took place on 7th – 8th November 2016 at CodeNode in London. Three hundred engineers and teams gathered under one roof to talk about serverless architecture, protocols, data science and deep learning, kafka, microservices integration, TDD and API, security, AWS, Zipnik, Spring, Lagom… and much more! There were also keynotes from Sam Newman, Adrian Colyer, Russ Miles and Anne Currie.

Mucon

Clayton Wells, software engineering team lead at Ocado Technology, presented ‘The asynchronous uncoordinated continuous delivery of 35+ microservices’. He detailed the e-commerce element of the new Ocado Smart Platform and explained how we’re building a resilient architecture that is designed to scale based on different customer requirements.

Alex Voica, Technology Communications Manager

December 7th, 2016

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Bot photo on the grid

When we were building the hardware architecture of the new warehouse in Andover, we realised we had developed a world first in radio design.

The new warehouse solution designed for our next generation of CFCs has thrown up lots of interesting technical challenges along the way. One of the first was how to communicate with over 10,000 robots concurrently.

More specifically, how do we get timely information on the locations of thousands of robots so we can efficiently control them? The answer lies in our unending striving for new and novel solutions to technical challenges.

Here is the story of how we taught robots to talk over 4G – and created a number of world firsts in the process.

Why Wi-Fi was a no-go

We started this project by studying the properties of Wi-Fi. The standard Wi-Fi network uses a distributed coordination function which is not a deterministic means of guaranteeing latency. The analogy often used is polite conversation at a dinner party: it is easy to have one single conversation at a table of two, much harder once you get to 12. Now imagine a state banquet; not everyone will have a chance to share their important information. There is provision in the standard for a point coordination function but nothing available on the open market supported this feature.

There is also the issue of scale, as most Wi-Fi access points (APs) can support a maximum of somewhere between 64 and 256 concurrent clients. Consider that we need to communicate with swarms of thousands of robots, talking to each ten times a second and with guaranteed latency. We needed to understand what this meant for the network design as well as how to accommodate it in an already busy spectrum plan.

Through our experience of existing systems, we knew we should enable a maximum of around 80 clients per AP and reduce the cell size to a very small area. This is similar to the approaches taken in high density deployments such as sports stadiums and auditoriums. However, unlike in those areas, the clients would be constantly moving and using the Wi-Fi network as their primary activity, rather than watching the sports game or concert. There is relatively little headroom above the bots, providing a further driver for many small cells.

Roaming would be required between the Wi-Fi APs – this is notoriously unpredictable. The best results we see in the real world are around 300ms, which would impact the command and control of traffic.

Another aspect to consider is that this approach would require complex planning and installation work for each warehouse, which would be expensive and difficult to maintain.

Ultimately, we found that Wi-Fi’s non deterministic performance would hinder our ability to develop an efficient real time control algorithm for the bots. Resolving this problem was therefore critical to the success of the overall project.

Working with Cambridge Consultants

We had a few ideas for solutions, but wanted to get a fresh perspective on the problem. Cambridge Consultants with their world class RF (radio frequency) and DSP (digital signal processing) skills were the obvious choice.

They also have the know-how and complete range of equipment onsite to manufacture small batches of the final product; in fact we learned a great deal from them about electronics manufacturing.

Base station image

The partnership has proven to be very successful because we produced a fully featured prototype within two years (it usually takes three to five). In addition (and maybe quite surprisingly to some), the initial system architecture we defined at the very start of the project remains unchanged.

The solution

The system we came up with takes advantage of modern wireless communication principles but has secret ingredients that tailors it to our environment. For example, it works in license-free spectrum so we can deploy it at a moment’s notice.

In fact, it’s the first deployment anywhere in the world to use the unlicensed 4G spectrum for warehouse automation. By making the system private, we were able to improve the performance and simplify overall complexity by minimising handshake and eliminating roaming aspects. The system guarantees a connection ten times a second to each of the 1,000 client hosts per base station – all working within a 150-metre radius.

Bot CAD

Like all extremely low-latency, real-time systems, we also needed to include features to provide redundancy. The devices have physical attributes such as dual network and power links and also logical tools to enable failover to hot standby units; this has enabled us to upgrade the base station firmware without impacting its operation. These tools also enable us to automatically recover from network and power outages, which has been invaluable during site commissioning tests.

Through this project, we’ve also bought Precision Time Protocol into the business; one benefit is that it enables very tightly synchronised log capture across multiple machines, which was beneficial during the development of the system.

Where next?

Building and deploying this system from the drawing board in only three years was impressive in anyone’s book but we haven’t finished yet. By designing this system ourselves, we’re free to alter and add features as we see fit. Soon we’ll be analysing how alternate MAC layers could help improve warehouse efficiency and designing a custom roaming algorithm optimized for our specific application.

This is only one of several wireless projects that are defining new applications for wireless technology – with OSP, we need to expand our capabilities in the RF domain. We’re recruiting!

Right now we’re looking for two team leads: one for traditional Wi-Fi, RFID and Two Way Radio systems and another person to oversee our Internet of Things applications team, which includes this technology. In addition, we’re hiring two wireless engineers for testing and product development.

Because there are many alternative applications for our scalable solution – factories, construction sites, airfields etc – our next task is to create a demonstration system to show off the technology to interested businesses.

Strategically, there are a number of areas we can improve to make the system work even harder, for example: miniaturisation, increased processing power, and beyond. It’s not in our nature to just say job done and stop innovating, and I’m excited to see where we can take the system next.

Adam Green, Principal Wireless Engineer

November 24th, 2016

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Paul at the meetup

Last week Ocado Technology had the pleasure of being invited to speak at the Data Science Festival organised at Google’s London headquarters in Soho. I was very lucky to be among the 200+ participants in the audience and would like to share with you a few insights from the Data Science Festival meetup as well as some information about how Ocado Technology uses machine learning to improve customer service and the overall efficiency of our Customer Fulfilment Centres (CFCs).

The meetup began with an introduction from Binesh Lad, head of retail for Google Cloud Platform UK & Ireland at Google. He talked briefly about how Google is rapidly expanding its cloud offering, offering Coca Cola, Best Buy, CCP Games (makers of EVE Online) and others as examples of customers using the Google Cloud Platform.

Binesh then jokingly played a video that introduced Google’s new, very exciting and definitely real product: the Actual Cloud (an April Fool’s prank that went viral a few months ago).

The second speaker of the evening was Paul Clarke, CTO at Ocado Technology. Paul offered a few quick facts about Ocado and how we have made online grocery shopping a reality over the last decade.

He then gave a few examples of how IoT, robotics and machine learning can be used together to improve the efficiency of warehouse operations and route optimisation for vans. Everyone in the audience was blown away by a sequence of short clips showing robots roaming around our new automation-based CFC in Andover, a real-time visualisation of the CFC in Dordon, and a live map of the vans delivering orders to Ocado customers in the UK.

Slide on screen of the new warehouse grid

Paul then moved to the second part of his presentation where he outlined how IoT is an unstoppable force that will usher in the true democratisation of hardware and software. Ocado Technology is already working on several IoT-related projects and is constantly adopting new ways of thinking into its product development cycles based on the innovation that is spurring in the IoT community.

Closing the evening off was Marcin Druzkowski, senior software engineer at Ocado Technology.

Marcin offered his perspective on data science and how Ocado is applying software engineering principles like code versioning, code testing and review, and continuous improvement to machine learning.

Marcin on stage

He also provided some useful tips for TensorFlow developers and outlined tools such as Git, Docker, Jupyter used by his team when dealing with data science. Finally, Marcin offered an example of how Ocado Technology is using data science to analyze customer emails and improve its customer service by using machine learning.

Marcin presenting a slide on TensorFlow

After the event was over, I had the opportunity to chat with some of the people in the audience over beers and (free!) pizza. Many said it was definitely an amazing presentation (a few said it was one of the best data science meetups they’ve attended so far!) and were very excited to learn that Ocado Technology is a pioneer in machine learning and data science.

Alex Voica, Technology Communications Manager

 

September 1st, 2016

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